Many believe this is because no one knew yet how to engrave printing plates with musical notes on them. Also, people sang songs in the book without instrumental accompaniment because most instruments had been left behind in the Old World. There was no room for them on the ships sailing to the New World.

Songbooks with musical notation began to appear 81 years later, in 1721. The first, Grounds and Rules of Musick, was written by Thomas Walter. Unfortunately, most people of that time could not read musical notes so singing schools were established by itinerant singing teachers. This was the beginning of the Singing-School tradition. Singing schools flourished, first, in New England. The singing-school teacher went to a community and stayed about three weeks. The students paid the teacher to teach the rudiments of music and to teach songs from songbooks the teacher sold. When the singing school ended, the students continued their singing through their involvement in the church choirs of their community. The teacher moved on to a different community but many times would return to teach new songs and to sell more books.

People enjoyed singing so much that, from 1720 to 1800, there were 375 different songbooks, or tune books as they were called, in print. Singing was so popular that many communities had their own "singing society." Although singing schools helped, many people still struggled with reading music.

To address this problem, two singing teachers from Philadelphia, William Little and William Smith, developed and published a new notation system called Shape Notes. Each musical note was given a different shape (e.g., a triangle, a square.) The shapes helped singers tell the notes apart, thereby making the music easier to read and learn. Little's and Smith's book, The Easy Instructor, was published in 1801 and included the shape notation.

Others began to print their songbooks with this new and popular form of notation. Over time, however, singing became less important in New England as European instruments like the organ began appearing. People could learn the melody following the organ without needing to know how to read music. The itinerant singing-school teachers began to take their singing schools south and west, to where it was still difficult for an organ to travel.

In no time at all, other singing-school teachers from the south and the west began printing their own books using the shape notation. Some of these titles include: Kentucky Harmony, Sacred Harp, Christian Harmony, and Harp Of Columbia. Unlike the singing schools in the north, which were dying out, those in the south and the west were beginning to flourish.

In fact, many believe that, had it not been for southern shape note tune books, the original version of many folk hymns, including the well-loved "Amazing Grace," would have been lost. This was because, without musical notation, people learned songs through each other's singing, not from reading music. Without a written version to guide him or her, each person sang the song as he or she remembered it. As a result, each generation passed on a slightly different version of the same song, to the point that, over time, the songs changed dramatically. In addition, when songs traveled from one community to another, the songs would also change.

Shape note music was not invulnerable to the effects of change. After 1945, for example, a number of changes occurred in the south, such as modernization, that resulted in people singing shape notes less frequently. Instead of participating in singing schools, people attended concerts of Gospel music and listened more to the music than participating in it.

Despite these threats to its existence, shape note music has survived and can still be heard today, in little communities all over the country. For example, just outside of Canton, North Carolina, shape note singers, at the Morningstar United Methodist Church, celebrated the 113th anniversary of their annual September Shape Note Singing, "Old Folks Day." Annual singings in western North Carolina also occur in Webster, Etowah, Pisgah Forest, and Black Mountain, just to name a few.

Joe Holbert and Karen Holbert are teachers and folk music performers in Western North Carolina.

©Copyright 2004 David Ray Skinner/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.